This image of Franz Schubert at the piano during a “Schubertiade,” an evening of his song compositions, has brought a host of questions to my mind through the years. One of the chief things I’ve always wondered was this: what did it feel like to be one of the poets whose words Schubert set? I got a taste of that today when I rehearsed with Caitlin Lynch and Jonathan Lasch for our recital on Saturday. That program includes three songs that I commissioned, on my first three published poems. I’ve been practicing these three songs, but today was my first chance to hear them with the singers. And I felt the things I imagined those long ago poets felt: inspiration. delight, gratitude.
And I felt something I did not imagine when I looked at that old painting: surprise.
It is a humbling, gratitude-inducing experience to hear the words I chose elevated, expanded, and made extra-dimensional through these compositions in the voices of my friends. The poems are not just decorated or enhanced, they have literally turned into something else. Is that a surprise? It shouldn’t be, right? I spend my days working with song and opera and I know about this magic. Or so I thought. I thought that because these were my words, I knew them, or could at least anticipate every response that might be connected to them.
But what made David write music that absolutely captures the atmosphere on our porch in Llano, where he’s never been? What made Juliana take a poem with so many images of terror and fear, and find the humor, sexiness, and allure inside of it? Some of that was in the words, maybe. But music explodes those things, or puts them under a microscope, or atomizes them and lets them permeate the room. As many songs as I’ve played, I didn’t expect it.
The greatest surprise was Jamie’s. The poem she set is called “Companions.”
We walk the shoreline, crunching over fossils,
Clear waves lap our feet. There, out further,
The water’s bottle-green, then dark, a bruise
Spreading toward the hills across the bay.
Sudden, near, and low, two loons sail past,
Bodies long and ringed necks stretched in flight.
They soar. They seem to soar. But look,
See the frantic agitation of their wings.
In my head, I had heard the final line as strongly defiant and triumphant. Loons mate for life – their flight looks easy from a distance, but in reality they are working hard. In Jamie’s setting, that last line is suspended, fragile, inward. Her music blossoms most at the image of the spreading bruise. It emphasizes the pain of the bruise, but also a time of healing in the future – a bruise spreads when injury is past. As Caitlin sang the poem today, I was first surprised by how it sounded in Jamie’s music – but as we worked together, I started to hear my own words in a different way. And when I thought about the genesis of the poem, a time when my husband and I were working to hold each other up during a very difficult period of loss, I saw that Jamie had seen a truth and a pace in my words that I hadn’t seen.
Isn’t that miraculous? This is why we collaborate! Music changes words and words change music. That’s a gorgeous mystery, but there’s more I’m thinking of tonight as I count my blessings. To hear what others heard in my words made me surprised at my own words, the words I chose and labored over. This makes me able to comprehend, for a tiny moment, what so many wise people have known in full: that we can only dimly know each other, that even we can not say or express everything we intend, that we only partially understand ourselves.
Should this not make us endlessly patient and flexible and forgiving as we consider our attempts to communicate?
I’m ending my day grateful for language, how it constantly changes and is necessarily incomplete – for music, which takes us where language cannot go – and for the hearts and minds of others, which show me more than I can ever understand on my own.